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Volunteering Can Reduce the Risk of Substance Abuse in Teens

Having trouble with your rebellious teen? Get them involved in community volunteer work. A new study from the University of Missouri found that this type of prosocial activity makes youth less likely to turn to drugs and alcohol.

Young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 report the highest rates of substance use and dependence, the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health says. Gustavo Carlo, a professor in the University of Missouri’s Human Development and Family Studies Department, found that prosocial behaviors, such as volunteering and donating to charity, serve as protective factors against adolescents engaging in risky behaviors as young adults. His study was published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence.

Good deeds pay it forward

Carlo examined data from surveys of 531 youths in rural Pennsylvania counties. The group was surveyed over a seven-year period as participants moved through junior high school to young adulthood.

“Prosocial behaviors are good for society and communities, but also they are a marker of moral development,” the professor says. “Parents want their kids to be kind, selfless, considerate and respectful. We now have evidence that these prosocial behaviors make adolescents less likely to break moral codes and engage in illegal activities.”

Youth in rural communities are more at risk

The study focused on rural youths because research shows they may be more likely to use illicit substances earlier. Positive, prosocial activities are less available. Rural communities tend to be more spread out, making it difficult for teens to get transportation to events and activities. These communities often have less access to recreation centers, spaces for meetings, volunteers to run programs and funding for organized activities.

Community groups and schools need to organize activities

“We need to organize prosocial activities in schools and communities,” Carlo says. “If we start early in childhood, kids can practice and learn to reap the rewards of prosocialness so that it becomes normative and habitual. These opportunities are not costly and kids are very creative and can contribute to the development of these activities. In the long run, kids can become invested in their communities and become engaged community citizens.”

Teens can volunteer to do community clean-up work, yard work and chores for seniors, mentor younger kids in reading or math, or help coach community sports teams.

Substance abuse prevention is less costly than treatment

The research has important implications for substance use prevention and intervention programs aimed at teens, Carlo says. “The emphasis on prevention is far less costly and likely more effective than treatment after the problem presents itself. It involves transforming the culture of our schools so that we emphasize both academics and psychological and behavioral well-being.”

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